Books and Sales

by Fred Ray on August 30, 2006 · 0 comments

People are talking about books and sales, so I may as well add my $.02.

Drew Wagenhoffer is blogging about POD (Print on Demand) books. I had some advance copies of the sharpshooter book made up that way, which looked better than bound galleys, and was amazed to see how far the process has come. The results now are far better than even just a few years ago, and altho not yet up to offset standards, are quite passable if you don’t look too hard at the graphics. It’s a laser process, and improving rapidly. The two biggies are BookSurge (owned by Amazon.com) and Lightning Source (owned by Ingram).

POD books are three to four times more expensive to produce than offset books, but they are not numbers dependent, meaning that you have the same cost per book if you print one or 10,000. Plus, each book is sold before it’s printed, and you don’t have to fool with inventory (or pay storage on it). There is less paperwork, too – BookSurge will print and ship the book directly to the customer, take their cut and send you the rest. It’s also cheap to get into. A couple of hundred bucks will set you up, and some authors have used POD to test the market, get reviews, and such before deciding to do the offset version. If you’re interested the best look at the system and the economics thereof is at Foner Books.

Offset printing, OTOH, is numbers dependent. In general, you have to print at least 3,000 books to get any economy of scale, which then have to be inventoried and stored. As a general rule, you can count on having to invest over $10,000 up front for production and printing costs, which is a lot for many prospective small publishers. But you do get better quality and a lower per unit price, assuming you can sell 3,000 books.

So for Civil War authors, POD is going to work best if you have a book that you really want to do but realize that the market will be small. Say, like the reprint of the history of the Umpteenth Maine, out of print for over a hundred years. A great primary source, and maybe you had an ancestor in it, but selling 3,000 copies might take you ten years. Unless you have a big basement and can afford to tie up that much money for that long, POD might be the answer.

I’ve been on the road a lot this summer and have talked to many people about Civil War books sales. All seem to agree that sales are off. But why? Is this due to fading interest in the war or something else?

I can’t offer a full explanation but it does seem to me that a lot if it has to do with gas prices. Energy bills are taking a bigger bite out of everyone’s budget now, which cuts into discretionary spending. Unfortunately one of the first items to go is book and magazine purchases. Meaning that when Joe Tourist goes to a battlefield book store, he resists the urge the buy that new copy of your book because he needs to fill his tank to get home.

Two other bits of information would seem to confirm this. One is that book store owners tell me that it’s not just books that are down, but all the other geegaws (hats, pins, maps, etc.) as well. Meanwhile Americans do not seem to be cutting back on their summer vacations, which says to me, fellow authors, that money that was destined for our pockets is lining that of oil companies and various petrocrats instead.

That’s my theory, anyway, and I’m sticking with it.

UPDATE: After some reflection I changed the part about POD books being four times more expensive to produce to three or four times more expensive. Obviously it depends on the size of the offset print run.


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